Brighton farmer Robert Sakata has no problem keeping busy, certainly not this time of year. Once spring arrives the farmer is up with the sun and working until it goes down, tilling his fields to …
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Brighton farmer Robert Sakata has no problem keeping busy, certainly not this time of year.
Once spring arrives the farmer is up with the sun and working until it goes down, tilling his fields to plant his vegetable crop of onions, pinto beans, wheat, and grain corn.
Now he can add one more thing to his regular to-do list: Representing Colorado farms and farmers when it comes to water conservation. Sakata was appointed by Gov. Polis to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to represent the farmers of Colorado on March 10.
“It’s rewarding. I wasn’t looking to get on but back in December, I was asked if I would like to submit my application for an appointment. I am so excited and it’s kind of scary you’re representing the citizens of Colorado on behalf of the state,” said Sakata.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board is set up with representatives from each of the major river basins. Sakata Farms is in the South Platte Basin.
Sakata is a Brighton, Colorado native. He graduated from Brighton High School and went to the University of Colorado Boulder to study microbiology. He also worked for the Amgen research lab which was the first lab in Boulder before it moved to a larger facility.
Sakata said “We were one of the original labs working on how to figure out making DNA in the lab. Amgen is applied molecular genetics. It was really exciting.”
After Sakata graduated from high school the last thing he wanted to do was to be a farmer. Growing up, he saw how hard his parents worked.
“I thought, man, it has to be an easier way to make a living. I was so fortunate that Mom and Dad encouraged me to go off and do what I wanted to do,” Sakata said.
When Sakata returned to Brighton he brought science to planting.
“It why I’m so thankful that my parents encouraged me to go off and do something else and to have diversity,” said Sakata.
Internment to Colorado
Sakata’s roots started with his parents. Robert Sakata’s dad Bob was a teenager living with his dad and two sisters working on a farm near San Francisco then World War II broke out. A family of Japanese descent, Bob and his family were moved into an internment camp in Topaz Utah. When released they decided not to go back to California — they had nothing left in California, he said — and came to Colorado.
“My family felt uncomfortable going back to California so they stayed in Colorado,” he said.
Ralph Lawrence Carr was the governor in Colorado at the time. He believed that the constitution protected the Japanese Americans and that they had a right to live where they wanted.
“It killed Carr’s political career. A lot of people did not feel comfortable living next to the Japanese. I believe it’s why there is a lot of Japanese Americans that live in Colorado because of that,” said Sakata.
Upon arrival, his father worked for the Bill Schluter family in Brighton, a dairyman.
“My dad gave him credit because Schluter saw how hard my dad worked and they allowed my dad to become a sharecropper. It’s how he bought his first piece of land,” said Sakata.
His Dad purchased his land and with his wife, Joanna continues to build up the farm with his knowledge of vegetable production growing gladiolus, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, onions, and sweet corn.
Robert Sakata operates over 2,500 acres but due to development in the area, they lost acres for growing.
“We also had to change our operation to grow a lot more vegetables such as sweet corn, cabbage, and broccoli,” said Sakata.
Sakata said the demand for seasonal help has been difficult for the sweet corn operation which needed about 100 people for a couple of months.
“We paid for transportation for some Haitians who were working in Florida. They were very knowledgeable but it was impossible to find enough housing,” Sakata said.
During COVID they were thankful we did not have a lot of help that impacted the production.
“We know of other farmers, it was challenging for them to spread people out also with barriers in the housing. We were fortunate our seasonal help is about 15 people. We were worried and lucky nobody got COVID, “ said Sakata.
Sakata, said a few weeks ago Salud Clinic came to his farm and gave every employee a shot.
“It was a big relief,” he said.
Sakata has no children so it gave him a lot of time to be involved with other boards. He was one of the founding members of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Grower Association for eight years and stepped down as president since his appointment with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“I’ve been an uncle for a few of my kid’s friends,” said Sakata.
When Sakata’s group formed the association there was not a statewide organization for fruit and vegetable growers. The largest organizations are the Colorado Farm Bureau and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union which the member are from all types of agriculture.
“One of the things I’ve always stressed there is only one word for agriculture, it’s a shame because it’s diverse. I don’t know anything about animal agriculture and some people who work in animal agriculture do not know anything about onions. There is a difference to what you are doing,” said Sakata.
The association was formed to be specific for the fruit and vegetable growers and to develop a five-pillar committee. One of the pillars is food safety training to understand the importance to protect and reduce the risk for contamination.
“This has been the most rewarding things that I’ve accomplished,” said Sakata.
“The first one is food safety, it’s critical for fresh fruit and vegetables. Soon after we formed the association, there was the listeria outbreak of cantaloupes in Colorado. We did grow cantaloupe here, it was a couple of miles away.”
Sakata said people were visiting his farm buying produce and asking if the product was okay.
“It seems food recalls like this are associated with the whole state. At that time, if there was an association to respond to the media and get information out it could have protected the health of the people. It wouldn’t affect other growers in the area. The other main reason is prevention. If there is another outbreak in Colorado again, it affects all the Colorado growers and we are under the microscope, “ said Sakata.
Visiting other basins
When Sakata took the role with the association he took the time to travel the state visiting the western slope where farms are producing fruits and the Southwestern slope in the San Luis Valley where they produce potatoes.
“The Continental Divide is a barrier between eastern and western slope it’s neat to see all growers come together and we all have water issues,” said Sakata. “Water is important for fruit and vegetable growers. It was another one of our pillar committees. Also, labor is a common issue for all of us as well as food safety and business development.”
Sakata said he enjoyed traveling and having conversations with the farmers. The farms are run mostly by families.
“It wonderful to learn about their histories, it’s incredible and rewarding, “Sakata.
The future as a board member with Colorado Water Conservative
Sakata, says he has lots to learn and looks forward to adding his ideas for the future of the farmer.
“I told the board, I will probably bring a lot of stupid questions since I’m new to the board, but I welcome the opportunity to bring a diversity of ideas and thoughts,” said Sakata.
On Sakata’s first day on the board, he was already coming up with innovative ideas.
“At our South Platte roundtable meeting with Colorado River Commissioner Brent Esplin, he talked about a program he’s working on putting remote data-loggers to access all the river and ditch systems. I thought since he’s putting data loggers, hook up weather stations to create one unit to transmit the data,” said Sakata.
The future for Sakata
“Both my parents have been great models, somehow they found the time to always be involved with us kids. My dad was on the school board and my mom was also on different boards including the church. I think my dad was one of the founders of helping to build the first hospital in Brighton. I think watching what they did has been an inspiration to me to continue my work,” said Sakata.
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